I have just finished reading The Friedkin Connection, a memoir by director William Friedkin recalling his many years as a filmmaker (and director of world class operas. )
The title, of course, is a reference to his Oscar winning crime thriller The French Connection.
In the book the 77 year old film-maker takes us back to his Chicago boyhood, his humble beginnings in the era of “live” TV back in the 1950s and his work for onetime documentary king David L. Wolper.
He tells us how he filmed the famous chase scene in The French Connection and describes over the course of several chapters how he and his cast and crew achieved the extraordinary head-spinning and/or stomach-churning special effects in The Exorcist.
He also mentions throughout the book the many machinations he was forced to use to coax suitable performances out of reluctant or otherwise unresponsive cast members and to outwit studio bosses who did not share his creative vision.
One gets the impression Mr. Friedkin may have been difficult to work with. In fact, he writes in the final chapter (“Reel Twelve”): “Every one of my films, plays and operas has been marked by conflict, sometimes vindictive. The common denominator is me, so what does that tell you?”
In fact, no one is perhaps harder on the film-maker than the film-maker himself. In a chapter called “Hubris”, set in the early 70s, he openly admits ‘he treated people badly.” He recalls seeing a private screening of Jaws weeks before it opened and being unimpressed. “In the space of a year, flush with success and an overblown opinion of my talents, I failed to appreciate the genius of both (George) Lucas and (Steven) Spielberg. Soon the American film industry would belong to them.”
Don’t expect a kiss and tell memoir though. Although he was married several times (his ex-wives include French film icon Jeanne Moreau and Brit beauty Lesley-Anne Down of Upstairs, Downstairs TV fame) Mr. Friedkin tells LA Weekly scribe Paul Teetor in a 2013 interview publicizing his memoir. “No one is interested in that. I’m not a sex symbol. I actually wrote about all that but I looked at the book and thought this is going to trip people up. They did not end well and I didn’t want to be in a position to either lay blame or accept blame.”
He does, however, shower praise on his present wife of 22 years, Sherry Lansing. And well he should. A former actress (watch for her in the John Wayne western Rio Lobo) she rose through the ranks to become the first woman to helm a Hollywood studio. She can also take credit for helping to steer Fatal Attraction, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Titanic and other films to box office gold. In 2003 The Hollywood Reporter named her one of the most powerful people in the film industry and in 2007 she received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 79th Academy Awards.
Meanwhile, perhaps due to all that studio pressure and in-fighting, Mr. Friedkin had a triple by-pass operation. (He attributes his first heart attack, at 41, to “deep dish pizza from Chicago and hot dogs from everywhere.” )
Mr. Friedkin frankly admits he has had his share of hits and misses over the years. However, his personal yardstick for the success or failure of his films is not based on how well they did at the box office. It is based on his own perception of the film making process. If he is proud of his work, then he considers the film to be a success in his own eyes.
For example, although admitting 1995’s Jade was ” a critical and financial disaster”, Mr. Friedkin says the film “contained some of my best work” and “the best chase scene I’ve ever directed.”
It was around this time that Mr. Friedkin began directing operas. How he became involved in this unlikely career turn is detailed in a chapter called “A New Path”. The chapter makes for interesting reading whether one is an opera buff or not ( frankly, I have never been able to cultivate a taste for the form.)
Fortunately, Mr. Friedkin, despite some health scares (which he writes about in his memoir) has lived long enough to see some of his neglected films critically re-evaluated . In fact, in recent years, Mr. Friedkin has appeared in theatres with his 1977 film Sorcerer, sometimes paired with another one of his misunderstood films, the controversial 1980 release, Cruising.
Maybe even the much-maligned Jade will achieve a second life. As Jeffrey M. Anderson writes in combustiblecelluloid.com ” After seeing William Friedkin’s Jade back in 1995, I wrote a snarky review for a little ‘zine, panning it much like most of the mainstream press had done … Seeing it again now, on a new Blu-Ray release, reveals that it’s not nearly as bad as the reviews made it sound in 1995 … it’s a good, solid thriller with some terrific touches by Friedkin . … great visual ideas … . a movie that deserves a second shot.”
And what does Mr. Friedkin think of today’s cinematic scene?
“The kind of films I once loved and still do are rarely made today. The action sequences for which my colleagues and I were celebrated now seem relics of another age. Computer wizards have rendered them old-fashioned. The heroes of today’s films are super-heroes. The villains are super-bad. The world explodes every day on a movie screen. After total destruction and annihilation, what’s left? And yet cinema is about illusion, and the illusions have never been more graphic or convincing. If I were to make The Exorcist today, I’d use digital technology.”